Your partner has had an affair. Should you leave? Esther Perel, psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity (2006), maintains that to think of the affair as the sum total of a whole relationship, is to think in black-and-white. Sometimes, exploring and coming to an understanding of what happened in the relationship makes it deeper and more resilient. But how does one go about the process of forgiving?
If you do decide to give the relationship another shot, Perel says, “forgive and forget” is not quite the right mantra. “First of all, you never forget… And you can forgive, but only partially at first. Forgiving is at the end of the journey.”
An affair causes damage on multiple levels: There is a shattering of the partner’s reality; a violation of the specialness of the relationship; and broken trust.
Shattering of reality
The involved partner typically experiences significant guilt, shame, and difficulty tolerating the hurt partner’s emotional turmoil. For the hurt partner, however, there is a profound sense of shock at having been left out, lied to, taken advantage of, and often manipulated. Everything now comes into question, including as the facts of where the involved partner was at given times or who knew what, and who else was involved (e.g., children? relatives? family friends?).
Violation of the specialness of the relationship
The experience of betrayal includes the violation of the sense of specialness in the relationship. Intimacies that were thought to be shared only in the primary relationship have been shared elsewhere. This usually includes sex, but may be limited to emotional intimacies.
Often the emotional betrayal can be more painful than the sexual, although the sexual betrayal can be very important for some people. Typically, it’s a sense that “these precious, vulnerable things that were signifiers of our unique relationship” have now been scattered to the wind, and the hurt partner wonders if s/he is not just replaceable goods. The failure of the involved partner to anticipate the impact of their actions often precipitates that plaintive and often penetrating question: “How could you?!”
Most significant is the the devastation of trust. What does this mean about us, about you, about me? Are you who I thought you were? Can I ever trust you again? Can I even trust a world that can be flipped upside down in the blink of an eye?
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If the partners are to move forward as a couple, they must bravely delve into what went wrong in the relationship. Why did it happen? What’s the meaning? “An affair has a meaning, a storyline — and understanding that is important for healing.” Some therapists urge full disclosure; others, like Perel, advise against hashing out the sordid details — the when, who, where, how many times sort of questions. “Partners want questions with answers that calm, not agitate.”
Yet, even as the couple begins to explore and understand the deeper dynamics that contributed to the affair and to make changes at both ends, it is nonetheless one partner who chose to breach the couple contract by engaging in an outside relationship; it is therefore the responsibility of that partner to take steps to rebuilt trust. “Two people are responsible for the state of the relationship, but one person is responsible for the affair. It’s very hard to forgive somebody who doesn’t take responsibility,” says Perel.
The cheating partner has to acknowledge the deep pain s/he has caused, apologize authentically, and take steps that validate the partner as first priority in his/her life. The partner who has cheated, says Perel, must “be more reassuring than usual; make the partner feel they really matter…. If infidelity tells me I’m not that special, then one of the ways to heal from that is to once again show that I do matter.”
Of course, the degree to which the revelation of an affair is damaging is strongly linked to the duration, intensity and nature of the affair: Was it a one-night stand? a 10-year ongoing affair? a pay-for-sex arrangement? Likewise, the functional degree of trust in the relationship (attachment styles of both partners; relationship history and dynamics; level of healthy functioning) prior to the affair hugely determine the chances for genuine healing.